Hamburgers and hot dogs are always great at a football game. How about some pimento cheese melts, fried ravioli or a brat wrapped in a blanket of fried cheese curds on a pretzel bun?
For dessert, try a battered and fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich dusted in powdered sugar.
On a stick too. For easier eating, of course.
With the start of the NFL season, teams hit the field trying to show just how much they’ve improved. In the stands, the pressure is just as intense when it comes to feeding fans. Chefs spend weeks and months each offseason scheming up tasty new dishes to help lure people away from their couches and big-screen televisions into NFL stadiums and up to concession stands.
“We always try to add a few items every year,” said Camilo Baquero, executive chef for Delaware North, the food service provider for MetLife Stadium and home to the New York Jets and Giants. “We try to make sure that we stay competitive and trendy with the items that are being put out there. So we always challenge ourselves either to come up with a brand new item or add to concepts that may already exist here at the stadium.”
Inspiration for that fried PB&J sandwich served at New Era Field, home of the Buffalo Bills, came from the annual Erie County Fair. Executive chef Jonathan Wilson with Delaware North wanted to boost a stand at the stadium and took inspiration from the fair wanting to make an item that could be held with only one hand. A year ago, they introduced a Polish kielbasa corn dog.
Creating this dessert on a stick required lots of testing. Wilson and his assistants made their own jams and breads with nothing clinging to a stick. Then they tapped the ingredients already used in the meal, and the crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwich worked after a dip in the batter and 10 minutes in a blast chiller before frying. A stadium steal at $5.
“We figured it would hit everybody,” Wilson said. “Kids, adults, something fun to play with. That’s how they get legs on the menu. We obviously want to sell it, but we’ve got to have a good price point.”
Some food companies like Aramark, which works with nearly half the NFL teams, tapped celebrity chefs to create some of its new dishes for stadiums. Cleveland native and Food Network star Michael Symon devised the B-Spot Red Zone Bratwurst with kraut, spicy mustard and Tony Paco’s pickles for FirstEnergy Stadium and his hometown Browns.
Hometown inspiration came easily to chefs at Lambeau Field, where fans can buy Brat in a Blanket: a brat wrapped in melted cheese curds inside a pretzel bun. Or they can grab a ham and bacon sandwich with sauteed onions and a beer mustard cheese sauce on a pretzel bun. Executive chef Heath Barbato calls it perfect glove or mitten food when the weather turns frigid in Wisconsin.
“Lambeau is still a king of selling brats and cheese curds and things like that,” Barbato said. “So we always try to feed the fans that only get out to one or two games something different other than the normal food here.”
Sometimes new food items are held back until later in the season, or when a team makes a run to the postseason.
Fried ravioli and jambalaya aren’t usually connected with Jacksonville. But the Jaguars teamed with a company called Grunt Style this year to create a military-themed area in one end zone, and executive Sean Kinoshita looked to MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat, in devising chicken and andouille jambalaya with dirty rice. Ravioli also is a popular MRE item, so they decided to fry them up with 10 ravioli per serving.
“It should be pretty decent deal,” Kinoshita said.
Fans decide just how good each dish is, of course, though chefs and their companies usually give an item at least a whole season to test its popularity. Demand decides whether a dish stays on the menu or winds up being replaced by something new, and companies closely monitor sales.
Baquero’s staff introduced The Fat Rooster spicy hot chicken sandwich a year ago, then looked for something that could appeal to more customers. That led to The Fat Rooster Drummies, chicken brined in buttermilk and hot sauce before being battered and fried and served with either a hot honey or honey mustard dipping sauce.
Jets fan Justin Sandomir, 40, of Nanuet, New York, and his 12-year-old son, Ryan, at a preseason game gave the drummies an early review.
“I like the crunch …” Sandomir said. “I like the dipping sauce. The spicy honey gives it that little extra kick that I like in my fried chicken.”
Sounds like a keeper.
AP Pro Football Writer Dennis Waszak contributed to this report.